August 19, 2002
VETERANS ARE VIRTUOSOS AT JAMGRASS
By David Royko
Special to the Tribune
If there were a theme to the Jamgrass Festival tour stop at Alpine Valley Music Theatre Saturday, it could be "The Originals and the Acolytes."
The term "jamgrass" is of fairly recent vintage, describing the acoustic-based, bluegrass-influenced counterparts of the heavier electric jamband movement, with many bands of both categories filling the void left by the late Grateful Dead.
And the Deadheads were out in force, the majority of the audience bobbing, writhing, twirling and bouncing in the aisles, in the seats and on the lawn, the smell of cannabis serving as this scene's aromatherapy of choice.
Most of Saturday's band leaders, however, were stars long before jamgrass existed, and the gulf separating the new generation from its role models was striking.
The band most Jamgrass players will cite as their musical Valhalla is New Grass Revival, which disbanded after playing the Dead's 1989 New Year's Eve concert. Of the seven musicians who recorded as members of New Grass Revival from 1972 to 1989, three were on hand Saturday and they sounded spectacular.
Singer-bassist John Cowan remains the single greatest vocalist produced by the progressive bluegrass world, and his soaring voice commanded attention for every note. He brought along guitarist-dobroist and Revival alumnus Curtis Burch, further enriching Cowan's talent-laden group.
The evening's true spiritual headliner was mandolinist-fiddler Sam Bush, New Grass Revival's leader for 17 years.
His group, playfully dubbed Menage a'Twang, delivered a set that hit like a pleasurable blow to the solar plexus and covered the range of Bush's musical passions, from long blues and rock jams and traditional-style fiddle tunes to twisty numbers like "Mahavishnu Mountain Boys." Bush's deep passion for Reggae served notice early on in the show that he has found an exceptional drummer in Chris Brown, the idiomatic open ring of his snare cutting the air.
Peter Rowan's Texas Trio, with guitarist extraordinaire Tony Rice sitting in, proved no less impressive in its soulful delivery of original, classic and traditional tunes.
Two songs associated with Bill Monroe (Rowan's ex-boss), "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Walls Of Time" (co-composed by Monroe and Rowan), struck a heavy, mournful tone that transcended the party atmosphere of the audience.
Mandolinist David Grisman, acoustic music innovator and creator of Dawg music, led his quintet through a set highlighted by "Telluride," and with multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven playing second mandolin, the pair evoked the bubbling delicacy of Grisman's late-1970s all-strings quintet.
Grisman quoted Bill Monroe as having told him as a young player, "You've learned my style. Now find your own."
All of these musicians did, and they continue to set the standard for the newgrass and jamgrass domains. Disappointingly, none among the younger groups (with the exception of the band Nickel Creek, not a part of this tour) has matched the brilliance of the veterans.
The Dark Star Orchestra, which opened and closed the festival, is a Dead tribute band, which by definition is not meant to be original.
Yonder Mountain String Band is a current favorite of the jamband constituency and it does many things well.
But it has yet to add much that is new to the newgrass-jamgrass world. The band's arranging in particular, though with some nice touches, lacked the texture, individuality and sense of rightness that one hears from the veterans. The band's set was fun, with an upbeat style that got the crowd going.
But Bush's high-energy charisma, manic creativity and bravura technique that few can match excited the crowd further and offered the youngsters a graduate course in how to do it all.